This week’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be particularly sweet. As a Montreal Expos diehard, seeing one of our own enter the hall of immortals counts as incredible news. But more than that, Tim Raines hopping onto the podium to take his place alongside baseball’s legends is a case of justice finally being done. After 10 tries, a player who was spectacularly qualified to get in will have finally made it.
Still, Raines’s induction can’t wipe out the numerous other unjust denials we’ve seen in Hall of Fame voting. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Bobby Grich and Mike Mussina should all be in. And that’s before we get to all-time juggernauts like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who, if we’re going strictly on the numbers, easily have the credentials to punch their tickets to Cooperstown.
Even beyond the ones mentioned above, there’s yet another class of players who never got their just due. By statistical standards, you could argue they were borderline cases. But these players were still stars of their era, all-time greats who somehow got wiped off the Hall of Fame ballot after only one try, because not even five per cent of the voters supported their candidacy. And few one-and-done players ever got a bigger raw deal than did Dave Stieb.
A Blue Jay for all but 22.1 innings in his 16-season career, Stieb made seven all-star teams and four times finished in the top seven in Cy Young voting. He won the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award in 1982.
While Nolan Ryan is the all-time standard bearer with seven career no-hitters, Stieb was unhittable (or very nearly so) more times than almost anyone else in baseball history. He twirled the first and only no-no by a Jay in 1990, and came agonizingly close multiple times.
In September 1988, in consecutive starts, he got to two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning before having no-hitters broken up. He took another no-hitter into the ninth in 1989, and missed a perfect game by one out that same year. If you were a Jays fan watching Stieb at old Exhibition Stadium — or when Rogers Centre first opened — you came to the ballpark knowing you might very well witness history, or at least a very strong run at it.
For all that dominance, Stieb’s lone year on the Hall of Fame ballot came in 2004. Just 1.4 per cent of Baseball Writers Association of America voters cast their ballots for the right-hander, a total of seven votes. That was just four more votes than Jim Eisenreich got that year, and not even Jim Eisenreich’s mom would ever pretend he was anything close to a Hall of Famer.
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Forget the all-star games, awards, even Stieb’s no-hit stuff for a moment. By statistical analysis alone, Stieb deserved a hell of a lot better than the scant support he got. In fact, a look at the numbers suggests he was better than a whole bunch of players who got far more attention (and more votes) from the short-sighted guardians of the Hall.
Jay Jaffe devised a stat called JAWS to measure the worthiness of Hall of Fame candidates, as well as those already in the Hall. JAWS gauges a player’s all-around contributions over the course of his career, then blends those results with the same player’s peak, denoted by his seven best major league seasons. By JAWS, Stieb ranks as the 69th-best starting pitcher of all time.
We need some context to better understand what that means. JAWS works best as a barometer for players already in the Hall. It does so by taking the average number of all Hall of Famers at a certain position, then comparing other pitchers to that number. Thirty-one starting pitchers come in above the average number, with all but four of them — Deadball Era pitcher Jim McCormick, Clemens, and still-on-the-ballot righties Mussina and Curt Schilling — already in the Hall. By this metric, Stieb does fall a bit short of the standards you’d look for in a Hall of Famer.
He doesn’t fall nearly as short as his measly 1.4 per cent support rate would have you believe, though. For starters, 19 (!) different Hall of Fame starters rate lower by JAWS than Stieb does. Strip out those Hall of Famers and restrict our query to pitchers who fell short of induction, and Stieb still ranks as one of the biggest raw-deal recipients ever.
Jack Morris, the polarizing right-hander who had a bunch of impressive career highlights but also posted an ugly 3.90 ERA pitching mostly in the lower-offence ’70s and ’80s, ranks 96 spots lower than Stieb by JAWS. Yet Morris lasted 15 years on the ballot, peaking at 67.7 per cent support, because voters overvalue wins and flashpoint moments, and underrate great pitchers on so-so teams and run suppression.
Jim Kaat also stayed on the ballot for 15 years, largely because he hung around a quarter-century in the majors, allowing him to compile a bunch of wins and innings; he sits 38 spots below Stieb by JAWS. Tommy John and Mickey Lolich drew consideration for a full 15 years with numbers that don’t stack up to Stieb’s. A passel of other pitchers with inferior resumés also garnered a lot more votes than Stieb did.
What Stieb did very well over the course of his career was suppress run scoring, an outcome over which a pitcher has far more control than whether he wins or loses games, since wins often come down to run support and other factors unrelated to actual pitching. Take all the pitchers who ever tossed 2,500 or more innings in the majors, then adjust their ERA for the effects of their home park (that way pitchers who toil in hitter-friendly stadiums get evaluated on the same level as those who pitched in pitcher-friendly environments). By that standard, Stieb looks even better, ranking as the 46th-best hurler of all time — better than Warren Spahn, Don Drysdale, Tom Glavine, Phil Niekro and plenty of other Hall of Famers.
Sporting News recently asked Stieb for his thoughts on voters snubbing him. He didn’t argue that he deserved to be inducted. But he did say he was surprised and disappointed that just seven voters marked their ballots in his favour.
“I surely did not deserve to be just wiped off the map,” Stieb said.
We couldn’t agree more. Dave Stieb was a helluva pitcher. He probably won’t ever get inducted into the Hall of Fame. But he’ll always be an all-time great in Toronto.